- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — School soda vending machines are about to lose their high-calorie fizz.

In a deal announced yesterday by the William J. Clinton Foundation, the nation’s largest beverage distributors agreed to stop selling non-diet sodas to most public schools, where childhood obesity has become an increasing concern.

“This is a bold step forward in the struggle to help 35 million young people lead healthier lives,” former President Bill Clinton said at a press conference. “This one policy can add years and years and years to the lives of a very large number of young people.”

Public high schools still would be sold diet soda under the agreement, but elementary and middle schools would be sold only unsweetened juice, low-fat milk and water, said Jay Carson, a spokesman for the former president.

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate the influence this agreement will have,” said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association. “I think other people are going to want to follow this agreement because it just makes sense.”

The agreement should reach an estimated 87 percent of the school drink market, Mrs. Neely said. Industry giants Cadbury Schweppes PLC, Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsico Inc. — all ABA members — agreed to the changes, she said.

The move shouldn’t have much effect on the $63 billion beverage industry’s bottom line, said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, which compiles extensive data on the industry.

“The sale of sugar-carbonated sodas in schools is a tiny, tiny part of their overall volume,” Mr. Sicher said. “The impact is more in terms of responsibility and accountability to the consumer.”

School districts and state legislatures have enacted a wave of legislation to cut back on student consumption of soda as reports show rising childhood obesity rates. Soda has been a particular target of those fighting obesity because of its caloric content and popularity among children.

“It’s a bold and sweeping step that industry and childhood-obesity advocates have decided to take together,” Mr. Carson said.

Diana Garza, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., said, “These voluntary guidelines escalate … the shift to lower-calorie, more nutritious beverages.”

A man who answered the phone at Cadbury Schweppes’ London headquarters said no one was available for comment. A call seeking comment from Pepsico Inc. was not returned.

“This is really the beginning of a major effort to modify childhood obesity at the level of the school systems,” said Robert H. Eckel, president of the American Heart Association, which worked on the deal with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Clinton foundation.

Under the agreement, high schools still would be sold low-calorie drinks that contain less than 10 calories per serving, as well as drinks that are considered nutritious, such as juice, sports drinks and low-fat milk. Whole milk no longer will be offered to any schools because of its calorie content, Mrs. Neely said.

School sales of those kinds of drinks have been on the rise in recent years, while regular soda purchases by students have been falling, said an ABA report released in December. But regular soda, averaging 150 calories per can, is still the most popular drink among students, accounting for 45 percent of beverages sold in schools last year, the report said.

The deal will be enforced most easily at vending machines, from which students buy most of their drinks, Mrs. Neely said.

How quickly the changes take hold will depend in part on individual school districts’ willingness to alter their existing contracts, the alliance said. The companies agreed to work to implement the changes at 75 percent of the nation’s public schools by the 2008-09 school year, and at all public schools a year later.

Dozens of states have been considering legislation on school nutrition, and many school districts across the country have begun to replace soda and candy in vending machines with healthier items.

The ABA adopted a policy in August limiting soft drinks in high schools to no more than 50 percent of the selections in vending machines. That recommendation was not binding.

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